The technology behind Android TV: how Google wants to reinvent apps for the living room

Google (S GOOG) is working on yet another platform for the living room, and it doesn’t just want to compete on looks alone: The company has come up with a novel way to develop TV apps and make use of their data. It’s all part of Google’s goal to unlock the information in apps — but it may not be what content providers actually want.
News that Google is taking another stab at the living room broke this weekend when the Verge published leaked screenshots and internal information about Android TV, which Google had apparently described as “an entertainment interface, not a computing platform.” The new platform would be based on Android, the Verge reported, and developers would be encouraged to build “extremely simple TV apps for an extremely simple set-top-box interface.”

Google's Android TV project, courtesy of the Verge.

Google’s Android TV project, courtesy of the Verge.

There are still a lot of unknowns about the project, which resurfaced after Google killed plans to launch a dedicated box in December. But the information published by the Verge is consistent with things that I’ve been hearing, and it points to a pretty bold departure from the way the company’s failed Google TV platform worked.

More like content directories, less like apps

To understand Google’s new take on smart TVs, it’s worth considering how consumers experience apps on smart TVs and connected devices today. On most devices, app makers have autonomy (for the most part) over how their apps look, with the result being that Netflix’s (S NFLX) app looks very different from YouTube’s, and the Hulu Plus app only bears some vague resemblance to the HBO Go app.
I’ve been told that Google’s new approach wants to do away with those differences by replacing these custom interfaces with standardized templates. Publishers wouldn’t need to come up with their own user interface, but instead would develop apps that provide data feeds to the Android TV platform.
For example, these feeds would consist of movie titles and box cover art, which would then be rendered by the platform to a more consistent presentation. To a consumer, browsing the catalog of one provider would look and feel more like browsing a directory in a bigger content catalog, as opposed to opening an app that’s completely separate from every other app on the platform.

Google’s end goal: making apps accessible

There are some obvious usability advantages to that approach, as it would for example allow consumers to use a remote control in the same way within each app, and expect each app to behave the same way. Deploying new features to each app would also be easier.
But the biggest advantage is that it gives Google access to information about the content offered within each app. Google has long pushed to break open apps and make their content searchable. The company recently introduced in-app search for Android, giving consumers a way to find content from apps installed on their phone through mobile search, and this new app model would help to build smarter universal search for the TV as well.

Google's in-app search for mobile apps.

Google’s in-app search for mobile apps.

But it goes even further, because it exposes data in a structured way: Not only does the platform know the title of each and every video offered through any app that it receives data from, it also knows which content category a video is placed in, and even which episodes of a TV show are part of the same season.
All of that information can help Google to build smarter universal search features, and even pull content out of the app context and present it right on the home screen, or cross-reference content to make smart recommendations. Previously, app publishers would try to solve content recommendation themselves, but this new model would enable Google to suggest content from Hulu Plus after a viewer watched certain shows on Netflix, for example.

A bold idea, but some may not buy into it

The question is: do content providers actually want this? Big video services like Netflix and others have spent a lot of money on building out their own content recommendation algorithms as well as user interfaces, and some may question what they actually stand to gain by replacing this with a Google-built template that makes their apps look like everyone else’s.
I have heard that Google has been trying to address these concerns by allowing publishers to instead switch to their own native app experience, or even combine the two approaches and list their content in a Google-provided template while still giving consumers a way to open the full app. I’ve also been told that smaller publishers as well as publishers who sell transactional downloads could be a lot more open to Google’s approach, while at least some of the subscription services may instead insist on using their own interfaces.
Google wouldn’t launch a product without participation from big names like Netflix and Hulu, which could mean that the company would in the end have to make compromises, with the resulting product looking and functioning a lot more like existing devices from companies like Apple, Roku and Amazon.

A launch at Google I/O likely, but not certain

Speaking about going to market: Google’s TV efforts have undergone many transitions, starting with the failed Google TV platform to the surprise success of the Chromecast streaming dongle.
During that process, some products were developed that never saw the light of day. Right now, all evidence points to Google reintroducing an Android-based TV platform at its Google I/O developer conference in June, but it wouldn’t be the first time that the company changed course last-minute. With that in mind, it’s best to consider Google’s new approach towards apps for the TV as a work in progress — but at least it is progress, and an effort to do things differently.
A Google spokesperson declined to comment when contacted for this story.